New Professionals - New Challenges
Early Career Social Workers Share Their Experiences
Editor’s Note: Across New York City and New York State, new social workers are entering the profession and meeting the challenges that have always been a part of social work practice. However, their day-to-day realities are compounded in ways that their predecessors’ may not have been – layers of complexity have been added, such as licensing requirements, and structures of support have shifted or have been removed completely, such as regular supervision. (For a discussion of some of these issues, please see the Executive Director’s message on page two.)
The following article is one example of NASW-NYC’s commitment to providing opportunities for the voices of new professionals to be heard within the Chapter. Four new professional social workers were invited to share their early career experiences, and each of them was asked to respond to the following questions: 1) Why did you choose to become a social worker? What were your hopes and/or expectations?; 2) What realities are you experiencing in the profession?; and 3) What is the one thing you feel you most need right now to feel supported in your professional growth as an early career social worker? The Chapter’s work with new professionals to address workforce issues has been and will continue to be a high priority in a collaborative effort to secure the future of the profession.
Meeting Senior Management’s Needs While Trying to Protect Direct Service Staff from Being Overwhelmed
Ricardo Torres, MSW; Director, Home Based Crisis Intervention Program, University Settlement
As an undergraduate student I was very involved in a student group that organized several cultural, educational, social, and community service events annually. I eventually became the president of the student group and the experience was extremely rewarding. I enjoyed leading, managing, organizing, teaching, advocating, helping and educating. After learning about social work from a cousin who was pursuing her BSW at another school, I decided that social work was the perfect career for me. It felt like a natural progression from what I was already doing in the student group. The thought of making a career out of something I loved doing as a volunteer was very appealing.
Prior to pursuing my MSW, I observed many social workers being promoted to management positions but lacking the skills and training necessary to be effective managers. The results were usually one or more of the following: low morale, high staff turnover, hostile work environment, poor service provision and negative outcomes. I chose to become a social work administrator because I enjoyed the tasks associated with this method of practice and I recognized a need for more formally-trained social work administrators. As a social work administrator, I hoped that I could help improve people’s lives by managing a program effectively and efficiently, thereby improving the quality of services and outcomes for program participants. I also hoped that I could be in a position to improve working conditions for social workers and create a model work environment that would one day become the norm rather than the exception in the social work field.
As a middle manager my greatest challenge has been balancing the needs of the group of people above and below me on the organizational ladder - senior management and direct service staff members, respectively. The conditions spurred on by the current economic climate offer a good example of this challenge. While resources are being cut for direct service staff, there is still the expectation by senior management to maintain the quality of service provision and outcomes for participants. The challenge for me is to meet senior management’s needs while trying to protect direct service staff from being overwhelmed and demoralized.
The one thing I need most to feel supported in my professional growth is a strong peer support network. I have been fortunate in my ability to assemble a network that includes my wife, who is also a social worker, colleagues at my job, and the members of the New Professional Task Force Steering Committee of NASW-NYC. A strong peer support network is important because most social workers entering the profession often find themselves working under less than ideal conditions. They are usually overworked, underpaid, isolated, poorly supervised, and given limited resources. They often become stunted in their professional growth and begin to question their career choice. Through my peer support network I believe I have found an effective countermeasure to these problems. Members of my peer support network offer me advice and feedback on difficult professional dilemmas. They share their resources, open professional doors that would otherwise be closed, offer me space to vent, identify continued learning opportunities to further my career goals, and inspire me when I begin to lose motivation. Without a doubt, my peer support network has and always will be an essential component to my success and growth as a social worker.
Discomfort and Use of Self in Advancing Client Goals
Elizabeth Rogers, LMSW; Senior Social Worker, The Children’s Aid Society – Bronx Preventive Services
I began working in the social service field after college as a full-time volunteer through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and received a placement at a nonprofit agency in Washington, D.C. Over my two years in the nation’s capital, I was often uncomfortable with what I observed and experienced. Located within a two-block radius of my office, where we had transitional apartments for formerly homeless families, was the mayor’s office, a Tier 1 law school, and one of the largest homeless shelters in the country. I literally saw power and vulnerability, wealth and poverty, joy and despair, co-existing side by side.
I think that some social workers, myself included, operate at times from a level of anxiety or discomfort - anxiety about being able to obtain rent assistance for a client about to be evicted, discomfort with the conditions of a city shelter that one’s client has no other options but to stay in. I know I became a social worker to address these inequities and have learned to utilize the discomfort as a lever to advance myself towards whatever goal my clients and I are trying to reach. I hope that through my work with families, their inherent skills and capacities are strengthened to the point that system involvement is reduced in their lives and they feel confident in accessing essential services. I hope that my services will not be needed, that my client will feel comfortable enough to say to me “I think I have reached my goals and I don’t need your services anymore” before I have the chance to share that with them. These moments sustain me.
My frustrations lie in the systems that, explicitly or implicitly, tell and show people that they are not respected, that make it easier for people to access services with a social worker instead of simply on their own, and that ignore a family’s strengths while focusing on their “deficits.”
At this point in my career, in order to keep moving forward in the face of these challenges and to feel supported, I need quality, consistent supervision from experienced social workers. The benefits of good supervision are immeasurable. Supervision helps to refocus my goals with clients, offers support when I am tired or discouraged, recognizes progress in treatment, encourages me to stretch my comfort zone with clients, and challenges me to examine how my beliefs and behaviors could be impacting treatment. A good supervisor is an educator, mentor, and advocate all rolled into one. I believe social workers must continue to learn new skills and expand their repertoires throughout their careers. Quality supervision is essential to this growth.
Organizing is a Personal Revolution, as Well as an Action We Engage in with the Community
Kalima DeSuze, MSW; Lead Organizer, Voices of Women Organizing Project
At the time of my decision to leave the Army after almost seven years of service, I lacked the language to express the inner moral turmoil I was experiencing. All I had was a wish to serve in a meaningful way that felt morally right. And as I was considering what my next steps would be, all I could envision was a career that was predicated on my values of social justice, self-determination, equity, democracy, community, and value and worth of every human being.
Social work for me is an every-day expression of the building blocks of my core being. This profession holds me accountable to live with an ethic of love and brotherly/sisterly responsibility. And in a world that on most days seems anti-love, I need a profession that summons the best in me and validates my desire to live those traits.
As a community organizer in 2009, I am deeply heartened by the reinstatement of organizing as a credible and worthy profession. Technically, I’ve been in the profession for two years yet my spirit shares in the sense of vindication of all the organizers who came before me whose value was forgotten and then questioned in this world. The reality for organizers is that we stand positioned to make an indomitable reemergence into politics, conversation, history books and most importantly, as a way of life and pathway to change both at home and abroad. For that, I greet every day with a sense of hope, possibility and a renewed sense of duty to be part of the change.
My spirit pulsates with anticipation because I can see the change; the people of America are returning to their roots of collective action. The attendance of over 90 people (mostly students) to the recent Undoing Racism Organizing Workshop at Hunter College of Social Work and the NYU Sit-In (February 18 - 20, 2009) are concrete indications that people have realized there is power in numbers and are ready to begin the conversation of how to embark on a personal and societal revolution.
As exciting as all of this is, there are also weak spots which left unresolved will serve to eventually cripple the work. Organizing is a personal revolution as well as an action we engage in with the community. Social workers need the proper supervision to support all facets of this work.
We have approached a time and space in the profession where we need to redefine supervision. Supervision must reach beyond sitting down to review a to-do list. For me, supervision is more about distilling wisdom about the work and about one’s role as a professional who is part of the work. It’s about being intentional in the development of new professionals and finding ways and/or creating ways to support that development. It’s about having clear skills from which you can pull to facilitate growth. At its core, supervision is preparing that young person to one day take the lead. If we are to sustain this profession, we must encourage managers to commit themselves to exploring what supervision looks like to their supervisees and then using that definition in the evolutionary process.
Concerns that Society and the Professions are Ill-Prepared to Meet the Needs of the Aging Population
Crissy Liu, MSW, MPA; Policy Analyst, United Neighborhood Houses
Though I am more of a policy person, I chose to become a social worker because I believe it is so important for those people making the decisions that ultimately affect a population in need, to understand that population from a more direct and humane perspective. In the years prior to graduate school, I talked with and met a lot of experienced professionals in the field of Aging who were working in government, doing research, engaged in policy analysis, running successful non-profits, and teaching. I found it compelling that many of those I respected the most had gone to social work school. I appreciate the common language and perspective that social workers bring to the table, even when sitting on opposite sides. I also appreciate that social workers work in a diverse array of practice areas, addressing a multitude of issues.
“Aging issues aren’t sexy!” This is a common sentiment that I hear this from friends, policy colleagues, and even fellow social workers. An overarching challenge (and motivation) for me is dealing with ageism and reminding people that aging is something that affects us all – both personally and professionally. I frequently find myself having to justify why I feel passionate about Aging issues. I am also concerned that society and professions, including social work, are ill-prepared for the growing aging population. I hope that more efforts are made to encourage and support existing social workers, and other professionals, to gain gerontological training and to commit to working on Aging issues. I am particularly enthusiastic about the work that is being done around this societal and professional challenge, including that of the Institute for Geriatric Social Work at Boston University.
To that end, two of the most beneficial supports I need are increased mentorship and networking opportunities. I believe it is so important for emerging social workers to have opportunities to connect with other emerging professionals, as well as with more experienced professionals, and I especially feel that formal mentoring opportunities are needed. Although I am part of a networking group for emerging professionals in the Aging field called The Next Wave NYC, I would value more opportunities to connect with other social work professionals who are working in Aging in New York City.
Lastly, I cannot help but mention a serious social work dilemma that I have; I do not understand why I need to take the LMSW exam. I feel that graduate education was important for the work I am pursuing in Aging policy. However, I am concerned that the exam will neither adequately measure my expertise in Aging, nor demonstrate my ability to be an effective social worker in the area of policy practice. As I mentioned earlier, I value the different practice areas that constitute the social work profession, allowing social workers to address a diverse array of issues facing New Yorkers. I am committed to the holistic social work viewpoint that I bring to my work of analyzing existing and proposed policies, and advocating for the needs of NYC’s aging population. I proudly claim my identity as an MSW – as a professional social worker. However, I fail to see how becoming an LMSW ensures my preparedness to carry out the work that I was trained to do, and that my colleagues expect from me.